Friday, March 01, 2013



The beginning was easy – a handful of poems had the poet’s name below and I had to disqualify them –please remember competition entries must not bear any name or other mark of identification! Then I turned to the bulk of the poems and the selection process proved far more difficult. It is clear that the standard of poems entered into competitions has improved enormously in recent years, due, I guess, to wider reading, to workshops and creative writing courses – or to all three.  I read all the poems with interest and at least twice before coming up with a long list.

(One point I wish to make regarding layout – a font that is too large (16 point) is almost as tiring to read as one too small, and double spacing in a poem is usually unnecessary. Ideally use Times font size 12, with 1.15 line spacing and reasonably wide margins.)


An open theme ensured a wide variety of subject matter, including quite a shocking number of distressing poems relating episodes of domestic abuse. (Very often in these latter poems the strong emotions obviously felt overwhelmed the poetry – it’s understandable.) There were poems about personalities: Edith Piaf, Mozart’s sister, Keats, Mrs Darwin and one referring to Jimmy Saville, as well as lighter ones about dancing, amber, rivers, trees, and the more serious subjects of birth and death. Once upon a washday is a poem likely to be quickly eliminated from most competitions since it is in rhyme and metre and the subject sounds rather old-fashioned, but it was a pleasure to read. I also liked Day Trip, Gap, Building Blocks, Moth, The Honey Times (a comforting poem about old age) and The Seafarer, a poem well-constructed. And others. All made for fascinating reading – but also for difficulty in deciding which to list and which to reject.

Long list (in random order)

By the 0ld Lock-Gate; Not Now, Not Yet; On the Cards; Origami; Recital on the Perfumer’s Organ; Book Louse Lace; On meeting Jean Paul Sartre; At the Barber’s; For love of a burning bush; Swan on the A46; The World Begins at the Kitchen Table;

All these were well-written. By the Old Lock Gate and Not Now, Not Yet, describe episodes of violence, the first in essential language the drowning of a puppy by boys, watched in silent horror by much younger boys afraid to intervene. The persona in the second is a suicide bomber, a monologue reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s  Education for Leisure. Another monologue, On the Cards, well-written, with only two long sentences for the 29 lines, begins and ends neatly with the identical phrase.  I liked Origami, the folding of paper to produce birds, rabbits, frogs, is beautifully described. A plethora of delicious scents flows from the Recital on the Perfumer’s Organ; Book Louse Lace is a small gem of a poem. On Meeting Jean Paul Sartre describes that meeting in a concise, rather amusing way – loved “Simone de Beauvoir was in the background so we couldn’t say much”.  The subject matter of At the Barber’s is just that, a good description of the barbers and of the hair-cutting. More mysterious is  For love of a burning bush that reads rather like an admonition to someone seeking a mystical experience. Both Swan on the A46 and The World Begins at the Kitchen Table are descriptions of past happenings remembered. In the first poem the person’s mind shifts the simile she originally employed for the fallen swan (that of an angel) to “a ghost, or soul/that of a child who has left home”. The second is written from the point of view of children witnessing in silence their father’s violence towards their mother and ends with the line “God was Dad’s friend and we knew it”.

Short list (in random order)

To Whom Crime is a Theory; Half-Gone; Squat; The Teacher’s Lot; Meeting Point; The Ghost of Banquo Speaks; Mr Micawber writes to Mrs Micawber, from King’s Bench Debtors’ Prison; What historians, vicars, geographers and mapmakers can’t help being dumb about, but the locals know.

To Whom Crime is a Theory is a political poem, a deeply-felt admonition to those in power to face up to reality and do something about effectively resolving crime, ending “The day approaches when you will ring 999/Only to find yourselves in a dialling queue/Your wait enlivened by mood music”.

Half-Gone is a very well-sustained metaphor for old ideas; a short poem – only 9 lines – but extremely vivid: “The old ideas…held together/dangerously with board and barbed wire”.

Squat is a poem about fear. A woman is alone with her baby in a squat. She has come from another country, doesn’t know the language of the country she is in, daren’t go out and is terrified: “in the night/ the animals and peering faces peeled themselves/from the despairing plaster and/ danced into the air, scurrying dimly around the squat”. This poem makes one wonder how many women are in a similar terrible situation.  A note: the poet has capitalized the initial letter of most lines but not all; please be consistent, either all lines are capitalized or only those following a full stop.

The Teacher’s Lot is in rhyme and ‘reports’ children’s speech as the teacher hears it, “I’ve got a calculator like what adds/so I won’t have to do it in me ‘ead”. Notwithstanding the incorrect grammar, the teacher predicts in each case a future profession for the student. An amusing, original, most enjoyable and optimistic poem.

Meeting Point is a fine sonnet, employing the image of a tiger to illustrate the options available to all of us, “One way the grazing herd, one way the gun – “; choices, however, whose desired outcomes may well be annulled by fate.

The Ghost of Banquo Speaks has Banquo ranting in chain-rhymed quatrains against Macbeth, Lady M and the witches, an extremely well-written formal poem.

Mr Micawber writes to Mrs Micawber, from King’s Bench Debtors’ Prison is very enjoyable. Micawber, fearing a pauper’s grave, in his letter to his wife, composes his epitaph: “Here lies Micawber, dead and cold as flint/lived well, loved much, spent more, so perished – skint.” But ends optimistically, just like the figure of Micawber.

What historians, vicars, geographers and mapmakers can’t help being dumb about, but the locals know is about those mentioned in the title not knowing where in that area – a “a coccyx on the Pennine spine” and a “god-forsaken place” – rises the river Trent, and ends, in contrast with the prosaic body of the poem, with the lyrical lines ( employing lots of gurgling ‘l’ sounds) “where the daughter of the water-god/ girds up her loins, lifts her head/and trills till her heart spills out”.

Prize-winners and Highly Commended

Choosing from the final poems – my short-short list - was extremely difficult, they were all deserving to be winners.

The contenders – seven for five prizes:   Intruders and Thieves; Kite-surfer; Darwinius masillae; My Private Collection. The Lost Library of Jesi; To Iken and back; Stoughton Church.

Intruders and Thieves has some lovely images: two stone owls  “under the cherry tree/veiled in every tumbling blossom which drifts/at the end of spring” act as guardians to keep out intruders. But they failed, the ‘you’ in the poem – the husband? – lets one in. The poet doesn’t explain if the intruder is a betrayal or, perhaps, death.

Kite-surfer is an intriguing poem and every line is delightful, each word chosen with extreme care. It is written from the point of view of observers who see a surfer “lift over waves/your kite above you like a segment of moon” A  poem about endeavor and failure, of longings and loss, and ends “A long while/ you lie prostrate upon the water till the moon/loops and climbs, lifts you up in its shadow.”

Darwinius masillae recounts of fossils found in a quarry that the poet sees as “a time-line”, the fossils “entries in a journal of millennia” and one, that of the poem’s title, “ a creature with opposable thumbs/etched on the ancient rock/reaches out, takes our hand.”

My Private Collection is about a museum – or is this really a dream or, perhaps, the poet’s mind    in which the poet searches for something he can’t name through  “an aisle of whale-ribs” and rooms with cases “where dogfish hang suspended  like lifeboats”.  A  grim Darwinian-museum ambience with some extremely vivid images; a very disturbing poem, ending “Once outside I might hear on the wind/the voices of rain which are also the voices of children. I might remember/what I left to wait like clagged boots at the door.” (N.B. ‘clagged’: while I understood this word to mean clotted with mud or similar, it is, according to the Urban Dictionary, also used to describe someone who is ‘suffering from symptoms of memory loss or disconnection from society”. Here the latter definition fits nicely!)

The Lost Library of Jesi consists of seven couplets describing men carefully dismantling a library of antique books and papers and finding behind the shelves a sealed room., with “columns fallen under a hemispheric dome/shadows curled asleep in empty niches along the walls.” The poem ends with “the men crawled inside that chamber’s deepest quiet/where one or two still could hear the beating of a heart.” As far as I can ascertain (Google), although Jesi is the name of an actual Italian town, the lost library of the title never existed, so it is a delightful conceit on the part of the poet.

In To Iken and Back the poet returns after thirty years to the cove where she (I’m guessing the poet is a she) went boating as a child. It is told masterfully (in 45 lines with no stanza breaks), the present and recollections of the past flowing easily in and out of the poem like the tides in the cove that is “…full now, washed with grey/to a perfect scallop”. It ends “…you have/ forgotten nothing and it is not sad/ the river narrows and widens again/ but everyone you loved is still with you.”

Stoughton Church, is about going to a church where there had been a function a couple of weeks earlier – a wedding, a funeral? – but now the flowers are faded, the celebration long over. The poet attempts to take a photograph but “cannot find the angle/ to take a picture”. This poem has rather sinister overtones, “clouds chase each other”, “weeds hem the base/ of the tower” and then “a rusty stain/trails down as if it had been weeping blood.” A poem to make one wonder what lies beneath the lines – and to shiver.

These are very different poems, each one worthy of a prize. The final choice must, inevitably be subjective. I chose Kite-surfer for its sense of rapture, a perfect description using the minimum of words, and for the way the poem catches the reader up into the poem itself and incites personal reflection; My Private Collection for its sad, grim undertones, the dream-like atmosphere, the vivid description of the windy winter scene outside the windows and the mystery of what is waiting outside that the poet has forgotten; To Iken and back because the poet takes us with her to Iken, we can almost hear the water birds’ cry, the voices rising from the pub and the child from the past laughing; The Lost Library of Jesi  because of the sealed room, shadowed and quiet, in which the beating of a long-dead heart may still be heard; Intruders and Thieves because it is beautifully described and for its terrible, mysterious ending.

So, of these seven, the two Highly Commended poems are:

MANDY PANNETT - Intruders and Thieves

CAROLINE MALDONADO - The Lost Library of Jesi

Third Prize

CAROLINE PRICE - To Iken and back

Second Prize

A.C. CLARKE - My Private Collection

First prize


Gabriel Griffin.   February 2013

See all current Excel for Charity competitions